Some find the origins of the word Slav in an old word slovo (a letter), a word, which means that the Slavs are those who (know how to) speak.
The Slavs constitute the most numerous group of nations in Europe (they make more than one third of the total European population). The earliest historic accounts record their huge numbers, which the 6th and 7th century Byzantine historians become aware of. It is assumed that spreading of the Slavonic tribes over the European lands was caused by an overpopulation of their homeland. No one really knows the location of the Slavic homeland. One group of scientists suggests that in the mid first millennium A.D., before the great migrations started, the Slavs lived along the coasts of the Baltic Sea; another group suggests that they come from the southern Belarus and northern Ukrainian regions; yet another group places their homeland to the Pannonia region and thence migrating to north and south.
Anyhow, for long periods in history the Slavic tribes lived in communities. It can be based upon the fact that from the linguistic and cultural aspects the Slavic peoples differ the least among themselves when compared to other European nations. The differences between certain Slavic languages are fewer than, for instance, between northern and southern German dialects. Besides these outstanding linguistic similarities – notwithstanding a remarkable property of all the Slavic languages to be open to adopting words and phrases from other languages – there is a characteristic kinship of spiritual and material aspects among the various Slavic cultures, particularly in folk literature, in their beliefs and traditions, national costumes, built heritage, music and so on.
Due to very little material evidence, it is hard to paint a good picture of an old Slavic religion. Some beliefs were common to all the Slavs, but it also seems that each individual tribe had its own particular idols.
From the first contacts with the Christians, the Slavs started to adopt the new religion and the first mass baptisms began with their literacy in the 9thcentury. It was the period when they got into contact with the Gospel – the Annunciation of salvation of mankind.
Scattered all over Europe, some Slavic tribes fell under the influence of the Roman Catholic West, the others under the Orthodox East. Today there are more Orthodox Christians – mostly the East and South Slavs (Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainian, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bulgarians), whilst the Western Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks) and Slovenians and Croats, of the South Slavs, are the Roman Catholics. In time, a number of Slavic peoples converted to Islam and some became Protestants.
It is typically assumed that the Slavic common traits are intuitiveness, non aggression, and even good nature – unlike the aggressive warlike peoples they came into contact with. The history of Slavic peoples records far more defensive than offensive wars. Early historic accounts (mostly the Byzantine ones) describe the Slavs as free, independent, proud and hospitable, the people that are humane to their captives, “they are not bad or evil at all”, that they like music, but are rather passive, in discord, tend to quarrel and be in conflict, anarchic and without any sense of order.
The 19th century Romantic European poets saw in Slavs a people still in fast bonds with the nature, a people “occupying more room in geographical than in historic terms”, meaning that they had not yet reached their historic peak, but expected the history to be theirs alone. So then a phrase the “Slavic soul” was coined and Pan-Slavic ideas appeared. The Pan-Slavic objectives were numerous – from a one unified Slavic state to international collaboration or just cultural exchange.
The Slavic peoples are also seen as the “people at the borders”. They occupy the central regions in the Euro-Asian continent, “between the Western and Eastern Indo-Europeans”.
According to their regional and linguistic similarities, the Slavs form three major groups:
- The South Slavs
- The East Slavs
- The West Slavs
- Lusatian Serbs
This list should be extended to Rusins or Rusnacy – East Slavs living in the South Slavic and the Elba Slavic regions – the west Slavic tribes who were completely Germanised in the period from the 12th to the 20th century.